Should Businesses Allow Customers to Use E-Cigarettes?

The e-cigarette user vaping it up at the coffeehouse before being told to stop

By Greggory Moore

Not so long ago electronic cigarettes were little more than a rumor, a technology most of us encountered only via late-night commercials, the sort that bring the term “boondoggle” to mind, full of seemingly non-legitimized claims as to their harmlessness and effectiveness as tools to wean smokers off of cigarette.

Whatever the truth about such claims, the e-cigarette has become a genuine fad, popping up in manifold forms, from simulacra of the real thing to elegant little machines of shiny metal and glass. But they all have one thing in common: they—or actually, their users—spew clouds of vapor into the air.

What’s in that vapor, and what are its health effects on both the user and those in the general vicinity? About the only current certainty is that nicotine—which some e-cigarettes deliver to their users—is unhealthy. Water vapor is, of course, harmless; the potential devil is in the details of what else e-cigarettes are mixing in with that vapor.

The incompleteness of our knowledge about e-cigarettes is mirrored by legislation concerning their use. In May the California State Senate sent SB 648, a proposed law that would have banned the use of e-cigarettes anywhere regular cigarettes are disallowed, to the State Assembly. But on August 14 the bill’s author, Sen. Ellen Corbett, shelved it until at least next year.

With no state laws restricting the use of e-cigarettes—or “vaping,” as it’s come to be called—it is up to individual business establishments to determine whether users may engage in the practice on a given premises. And it’s a choice facing an increasing number of businesses, as an ever-increasing number of “vapers” are vaping up indoors.

“[… E]-cigarettes […] pose unknown health risks in a public space,” Sen. Corbett said in a May press release about SB 648. “We must always stand on the side of public health[,] since we still do not yet fully understand the safety of chemicals present in e-cigarette vapors or when nicotine itself leaks from the products. It simply makes sense to regulate e-cigarettes as a tobacco product when they are already prohibited in many public spaces.”

Sen. Corbett goes on to point out that “Amtrak has banned their use on trains, and the Navy banned them below decks in submarines. The U.S. Department of Transportation has also proposed a ban aboard airplanes because of concerns about health risks from vapors.”

Several local municipalities have gone further. For example, way back in December 2010 the King County (Washington) Board of Health banned the “use e-cigarettes in any area where smoking is prohibited by law.”

In 2009 California almost had a similar law. But when the bill in question came to him for signature, then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoed it.

“While I support restricting access of electronic cigarettes to children under the age of 18,” he wrote to the Senate at the time, “I cannot sign a measure that also declares them a federally regulated drug when the matter is currently being decided through pending litigation. […] If adults want to purchase and consume these products with an understanding of the associated health risks, they should be able to do so unless and until federal law changes the legal status of these tobacco products.”

While Schwarzenegger did not address the question of potential harm from secondhand vapor, there is no way businesses can avoid the issue. Ban vaping or allow it—there is no middle ground.

Recently I witnessed just such a conundrum play out at a Long Beach coffeehouse. Over the course of an hour or so a patron sporadically took pulls on his e-cigarette, spewing copious clouds of scented vapor into the air, which conspicuously drifted to onto one patron sitting in a corner with a laptop. Finally an employee told the vaper he could not continue to use his e-cigarette indoors, saying that a potential customer had walked out complaining that he was not going to remain in a confined space where people were allowed to puff away.

Considering that the coffeehouse had no official policy on vaping, the employees were unsure what they could—or should—do, and it was only customer feedback that prompted action.

Like so much of what goes on in business, it may be that the short-term fate of vaping in business establishments is dictated by the demands of customers. So next time clouds of peach-scented, perhaps-nicotine-infused vapor are misting you and your grilled Portobello mushroom sandwich, if you don’t like it you should tell the management—and if that doesn’t work, find somewhere else to eat. Because until they’re forced to act otherwise, some vapers will vape wherever and whenever they feel like it, rightly or wrongly.



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